I’d done lots of reading and my conversations with local staff had painted in some detail. But I was utterly unprepared.
It takes 9 hours to drive from Colombo to Kilinochchi.
Colombo is the prosperous-looking capital of Sri Lanka, a middle income country. I’d chatted to a man working at my hotel in Colombo. He described to me how Sri Lanka is working for the Big People. But for him – a family man with two kids working 18 hour shifts as attendant and earning less in a month than the rate of my hotel room (a big overstatement, for certain, but we all understand his point) – life is difficult. High inflation of prices for essentials is just making it harder. He was describing a common predicament – large gap between rich and poor in middle income countries – and I felt for him.
But the road up to Kilinochchi is a journey into a different, more complex world. Not simply the inequitable one that I have seen before.
At first, from Puttalam to Anuradhapura, the evidence of conflict is not what you might expect. We’re in the heart of elephant country. A recent ‘census’ counted over 7,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka. Human-elephant country is a serious problem. Government policies yo-yo between discouraging settlement in elephant passes to intentional development in the areas. I see houses abandoned. The patchwork of rice fields remains untended.
After Anuradhapura we begin to pass garrison after garrison of government troops: A silent, ominous, quickening drum roll. A war occurred here.
Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have lived side by side on the Island for over 2000 years. Mostly they have been able to find peaceful co-existence. Throughout history however Sri Lanka has suffered invasions from India. These have periodically stoked popular resentment amongst the Sinhalese towards the Tamils, who share deep ties with populations in India, Tamil Nadu in particular. Tamils have been treated as outsiders. There have been times when large numbers of Tamils have evacuated or been expelled to India.
The British colonial period threw toxic yeast into the mix. In an account that so echoes what I understand of Rwanda, my colleague Rane puts me straight. When the British took control of the island in 1815 they sought to take the power away from ‘trouble-making’ Sinhalese leaders by eroding the institutions on which their statuses were founded. They abolished slavery and replaced in kind servitude with salaried labour. The British promoted the minority Tamils into a ruling class, appointing them to all the leadership roles of public office. They invested in their education, already at a higher level than the Sinhalese, in so doing entrenching this divide and rule order. When Sri Lankan Tamils were not malleable to the plan, the British brought in Indians to do the job. By the time Sri Lanka (which was called Ceylon at the time) achieved independence in 1948 the British had transformed the economy (tea anyone?), turned the structures of power in the country on their heads, and created an environment ripe for ethnic conflict.
Support for Buddhist-Nationalism grew strong. When in power populist leaders took increasingly steps to reaffirm the Sinhalese at the centre of culture and Buddhism as the dominating religion. In 1972 the number of Tamil places in universities was capped and Buddhism was written into new legislation as holding the “foremost place” amongst the island’s religions. Widespread unrest ensued and groups of young Tamils, including The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), called for an independent Tamil state in the north and the east. They established jungle guerrilla bases.
Boiling point hit in 1983 when the Tamil Tigers ambushed and massacred an army patrol in the Jaffna region. The Sinhalese retaliated with a month of killing and looting, now known as Black July. As many as two thousand people were slaughtered, and whole areas were levelled.
The war lasted 26 years. The war had its ebbs, including an unstable ceasefire from 2002 to 2005. But its crests were horrific. Upwards of 100,000 women, men and children, a large proportion of them civilians, were killed. Over 1 million people were displaced. War crimes were almost certainly perpetrated by both sides, but with no independent observers allowed into the war zones, nothing can be confirmed.
Kilinochchi town was the base of the Tamil Tigers, the symbolic capital of their Eelam. The district was the place of the Tamil Tigers’ last stand to the Sri Lanka Army’s massive offensive in 2008. By the time President Rajapakse declared the final victory of the Sri Lanka Army in May 2009, and a conclusive end to the war, Kilinochchi had been utterly flattened.
Kilinochchi is where I am heading. (This blog was written in October 2011).
I’m on assignment to provide technical support for pro-poor market development as part of Practical Action’s one-year rehabilitation and recovery project here. I’m delivering training to our staff and a number of other agencies working in the conflict affected north and east – CARE, Oxfam, Worldvision and UNDP. I am the first Practical Action head office staff to go there.
It was as we passed Vuvuniya, after the army checkpoint, that my stomach started turning.
On the final 70 km stretch to Kilinochchi there are more bunkers than other buildings put together. Hardly a single building from three years ago remains. The buildings that stand are mostly the result of the UN’s Refugee Agency: corrugated iron shacks covered with waterproof sheets, and occasionally, newly built ‘permanent resettlements’. There are far more soldiers than civilians. Every road, bridge and irrigation channel has been blown up.
It’s dark by now. On the insignificant upside, there is so little around that there’s no light pollution. As the driver, Bandara, and I take a cheeky pee on the side of the road, I can see the Milky Way.
In the two and a half years since the end of the war, reconstruction and rehabilitation has started apace. Road building, bridge repair, irrigation rehabilitation. De-mining programmes abound. Large scale programmes to return internally displaced persons have made swift, safe and effective progress. ‘Return’ often proves to be a misleading word though, many ‘returnees’ have been resettled in new locations, bringing both challenges and opportunities. All work is led or closely monitored by the government, and financed by the international humanitarian and development industries. Faith-based groups (especially Christian) tend to be at the forefront of putting civil society roots back in the ground.
The private sector is patchy. The biggest companies who are kitted out to cope with high risk have re-established themselves. Cargill’s national supermarket chain, for example, has set-up a new supermarket even before the road leading to it is completely finished. Individual entrepreneurship is also strong. This is a consequence of many not having access to natural resources; traditional occupations on which they used to depend difficult to return to. This entrepreneurship comes in every flavour: Small shops selling small goods; tractor rental; basic eateries; and also prostitution, largely serving the humanitarian expats. My colleague Sampath tells me that in Batticola, another conflict-affected district, as much as 40 % of women who have lost their husbands in the war have entered into prostitution. There’s also a missing middle to the business environment: small and medium enterprises do not have the skills and resources to understand the risks and opportunities of this post-conflict world.
Practical Action’s project here is called A New Beginning – Rehabilitating Irrigation Infrastructure and Initialising Market Development. It is funded by the United States government Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).
The team here is working with recent returnees and government engineers to rebuild traditional water tanks in two locations. The tanks are little more than natural bowls, each around half a kilometre in length and width. The natural edges of the bowls are raised with soil covered in grass, and strategic channels and gates are installed to allow locals to control the flow of water. Maintenance of the banks and the irrigation gates is traditionally carried out by the communities living around the tanks. Rain water is captured and stored during the monsoon and channelled into fields in the torrid dry season. The bowls also raise the surrounding water table, keeping wells filled higher and for longer and create an oasis for wildlife. To me this is a perfect example of indigenous, intermediate technology.
With Kilinochchi in the heart of the conflict zone for the most of the 26-year war, these communities have had to flee their homes and lives, sometimes on a number of occasions and often for years at a time. Families are now returning, but empty handed and often penniless, they do not have the resources to maintain the tanks as they had done in the past.
To get the tanks back into good shape the project uses a common humanitarian approach – ‘cash-for-work’ – offering incomes to returning locals by hiring them to do the work.
As Suganthan, the project’s technical officer tells me, this approach is much harder to use effectively and not necessarily desirable.
Most other humanitarian cash-for-work programs around here are really just trying to shift cash to returnees, and use cash-for-work as a guise to argue that they are not creating aid dependency. In practice though these programmes hardly judge their performance on getting the ‘work’ that is carried out, and care little whether those hired actually work or not. Often they don’t. Workers sit under trees all day and they still collect the cash in the evening. The work doesn’t get done, is it is done poorly and no-one cares. Aid dependency still festers.
The approach in this project is different. We really want the work to be done. The completion of the tank rehabilitation in time for the end-of-year rains will determine whether the returnees can grow anything in the dry season in the new year. So Suganthan calls Practical Action’s approach ‘work-for-cash’. If locals want to work, they can, and they’ll earn something, he explains. “If this doesn’t happen, we hire local construction companies to get the work done.”
In reality around 60 % of the work is carried out by the poor. Poor people spend some time working on the tanks and spend the rest of their time rebuilding their homes and preparing their fields.
(written a few months later) Now in March, with tanks full, irrigation systems ready and the dry season arriving, the project now helps the locals around the tanks to recommence vegetable or fruit production. These are crops that can bring in income, what these people say they really need most.
Many other livelihood support programmes around here and elsewhere focus entirely on agricultural production and end up panicking when the project ‘beneficiaries’ produce a glut of produce no-one wants to buy. Again Practical Action’s team is taking a different approach.
We are working with the farmers and other people who work in agriculture to think about the demand for crops in the end markets: local ones, those in Jaffna up north, and those down south and identify what can be done to meet this demand. The team is facilitating a process that enables poor returnees to produce in-demand fruit and vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way and sell them for reliable prices into the markets that want them.
To make agriculture work again for those most in need, the team realises that production needs to be demand-driven and the market system as a whole needs to work well. The team therefore works not just with the poor farmers but also with other actors in the whole supply chain that takes produce from the field to the kitchen table and the fruit bowl. These actors include traders, buyers and retailers. We also work with the people who provide important services for the farmers such as agricultural advice and inputs. Many of these actors face their own huge challenges in this post-conflict situation: they feel the risks and cost of doing business here are too high, they are ill-equipped and have poor skills. The networks and relationships their occupations depend on are non-existent or hostile, as a result of the war and the displacement it caused. If their problems are not addressed alongside those of the farmers, then the returnees’ produce will not find reasonable and reliable prices.
In this way the project is demonstrating the potential of the area and its farmers, encouraging the government and others take seriously the opportunities that exist here and begin to reinvest in small farmers.